By TERENCE NEILAN The New York Times
Two American soldiers were killed and three were wounded when their convoy struck an improvised explosive device about 45 miles north of Baghdad, the United States military said today.
The convoy was traveling north along Highway 1 when the attack occurred at about 4:30 p.m. on Thursday in Samarra, the United States Central Command said in a statement. The wounded were taken to a hospital, but no other details were released.
The deaths bring the number of Americans killed since major hostilities were declared at an end on May 1 to at least 158.
The announcement of the fatalities came as the American drive on suspected guerrilla targets entered a third night on Friday, with Reuters quoting witnesses as reporting several explosions around the Baghdad airport.
The United States has said it will aggressively pursue insurgents in Iraq (news - web sites) with stepped-up, first-strike efforts.
Another example of that strategy apparently took place late Thursday, when an Army Apache helicopter near Tikrit attacked and killed seven Iraqi insurgents as they prepared to fire rockets at a United States military camp, news agencies quoted the military as saying.
In another incident on Thursday, gunmen killed an American civilian contractor and wounded another north of Baghdad, news agencies quoted the military as saying today. The two, who are among many private contractors helping in reconstruction efforts and with the training of Iraqi officials, were traveling with a convoy of vehicles near Balad, 45 miles north of Baghdad.
Three paratroopers from an 82nd Airborne Division task force were wounded Thursday night during a rocket attack east of Falluja, in the so-called Sunni triangle.
Two of the paratroopers were evacuated to the 28th Combat Support Hospital for further treatment, with one them in serious condition, central command said. The third soldier was treated on site and returned to duty.
Other members of the task force destroyed an isolated three-story building used by terrorists as a staging area for attacks and storage of ammunition Thursday night, military officials said.
The target was located in the town of Husayba, close to the Syrian border. F-16 fighter jets delivered two satellite-guided bombs, completing the destruction of the target, central command said today.
Central command also announced today that it would augment its forward headquarters in Qatar with several hundred staff members in the coming weeks. Most of its more than 2,000 staff members remain in Tampa, Fla.
More than a hundred staff members have been based in Qatar since the forward base was established late last year, and staffing has ebbed and flowed depending on operations and exercises.
In Rome today, meanwhile, a military plane arrived with a first group of wounded troops after a suicide bombing in Nasiriya, in southeast Iraq, on Wednesday. The blast killed 12 Italian military police officers, 4 soldiers and 2 civilians. At least 9 Iraqis were also reported killed.
The bodies of the dead will be shipped home on Saturday. The wooden coffins will be laid out at the central Roman Vittoriano palace on Monday, with the public allowed to view them over a period of 11 hours.
In Brussels today, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of Italy defended the government's decision to send troops to Iraq, but said he had been opposed to the war and tried to persuade President Bush (news - web sites) to change his mind.